Workers must have a living wage

Mauritius Times – 60 Years

By Peter Ibbotson

Now that the already well-paid Civil Servants have had their increases (far too large in the case of the top men, and too little in the case of the lowest-paid employees), it is the turn of 11,000 employees paid under ‘‘Other Charges” to have their wages scrutinised by a Working Party (No. 2).

In the past, the wages paid to these government labourers, artisans, apprentices, etc., have been fixed after reference to the wages paid to workers of similar status in private employment. Therefore, we must examine the method of assessing the wages of such workers in outside employment; and we find that they are still regulated by reference to a 1939 Minimum Wage Board which drew up a typical labourer’s budget and assessed his wage accordingly. The Board drew up a list of commodities which it thought a labourer ought to wish to buy for himself and his family and computed the post of these commodities. The monthly total cost was Rs 18.61; that would, in the estimation of the Board, keep together the body and soul of an adult /female worker. With a wife and two children, the Board estimated, the workers would need Rs 16.39 a month more; but his wife was expected to work, and he was expected to eke out his earnings with cow-keeping; so that the 1939 man’s wage was fixed at 66 cents a day.

That 1939 Board’s findings have not been reversed. It still is used to regulate the wages of workers in private enterprise; and these wages still regulate the wages paid under “Other charges” to Government labourers. This is a state of affairs which is truly (as Mr Dabee said in the Mauritius Times on January 10) “inhuman and disgraceful”.

What of wage rates inside and outside the Government service? Ramage recommended a daily rate of Rs 4.50 for drivers. Up to a few months ago privately employed drivers were getting Rs 5.50 a day. They complained that this was too low and arbitrators awarded them (after enquiry) an extra Rs 1.30 a day, making Rs 6.80 in all. But Government drivers haven’t had such in award; if Working Party 2 is considering outside earnings in framing its recommendations for Government labourers, then this very recent award of the arbitrators of Rs 6.80 a day for drivers cannot be ignored.

The whole wage structure needs, of course, to be examined. It needs to be related to the actual cost of life in Mauritius today. And, of course, since the Howes award, the cost of living has gone up already: meat and fish have increased in price. As Tribune Ouvrière pointed out on January 21, dans notre curieuse île, l’augmentation des prix suit l’augmentation des salaires. The workers paid under “Other Charges” haven’t had any rise yet, but they are having to pay the same increases as those who have had a rise — and so they are relatively still even worse off!

What does it cost to live in Mauritius today? Two years ago, Father Dethise invested this very matter. He published some typical workers’ budgets; and found that most workers were earning insufficient to feed themselves and their families properly. A worker had a monthly income of Rs 150.00 on which to keep himself, his wife and three children. On food alone the family spent Rs 114.12 a month — three-quarters of his wages! But the average spent on food alone by a family with three children was Rs 120 a month; and since February 1956, prices of all commodities have certainly not gone down. Another worker’s family spent more than the average on food — Rs 133.10 a month — to provide what the Health Department considered a reasonably balanced diet for a man, his wife, and their children.

But as Father Dethise pointed out, a family of four children is more normal in Mauritius than a family of three; and if Rs 133 a month provided only a reasonable diet for five persons, what sort of a diet would it buy for a larger number? Concluded Father Dethise, une dépense de Rs 120 pour une famille ordinaire est probablement juste assez, sûrement rien de trop et peut-être un peu trop peu. A family of man and wife and 9 children spent Rs 122.40 a month on food, of which Rs 67.20 went on rice alone, and only Rs 6.00 (just one pint of milk a day) on milk.

These typical budgets have been supplemented in later months by details of personal expenditure given in letters to the press by other workers. They show that the present level of wages paid to workers on the sugar estates, in private employment, and under “Other Charges”, is too low. The Working Party 2 should scrap the 1939 basis of wage assessment and award a level of wages which bears a relationship to the cost of life in Mauritius today. What did Father Dethise say two years ago? Arrivé au terme de l’enquête dont j’ai été chargé, il me reste à faire une simple addition… Pour une famille ordinaire :

Nourriture: Rs 120; Loyer: Rs 25; Vêtements: Rs 30; Accessoires: Rs 40.
Total – Rs 215

And since the working month is 26 days long, a man must have a daily wage of over Rs 8.00 to pay out Rs 215.00 a month. And he must be in work all the year round — which most Mauritian workers are not.

Since Father Dethise’s findings are based on actual examination of worker’s budgets, and since prices have not fallen since 1956, it follows that, to achieve a minimum of social justice for the workers of Mauritius, the Working Party must fix a minimum wage of at least Rs 8.50 a day for the very lowest paid dally-paid workers.

I hope, however, that the Working Party will get away, once and for all, from this business of daily rates of pay. It is high time that wages were expressed at an hourly rate. Said Ramage (paragraph 147) “a daily rate is convenient in a certain stage of industrial and commercial development, although in more advanced industrial communities it is replaced by an hourly basis for wages… With the increasing emphasis placed on hours of work, the logical development is to apply a similar hourly basis to wages, as is already the practice in most overtime.”

Ramage failed to recommend the institution of an hourly basis for wage rates; perhaps Working Party 2 will do so. It should do so. And it should lay down, very definitely and categorically, that all hours worked in excess of 8 per day are overtime and should be paid for at overtime rates. This may appear to be an infringement of trade union activity but if the principle can be established in a Government report that an 8-hour day is standard, with hours in excess of 8 paid for as overtime, then non-Government workers can have a useful handle to refer to in their negotiations with private employers, many of whom at present do not always recognise when overtime starts. If Government gives the lead, then private enterprise must fall into line.

If only Working Party 2 were to establish the principle of a minimum living wage for Government employees paid under “Other Charges”, with the minimum bearing no reference to the possibility of the wife working or the family keeping cows or chickens to eke out the family income, it would be an excellent thing. And as matters are at present, a minimum daily wage for the very lowest paid of at least Rs 8.24 (that is, Rs 1.03 an hour) is essential so that workers can keep themselves and their families and not have to subsist on a diet of rice and bread and black tea (with meat once a month and fish once a week).

The Mauritian worker is the worst-paid in the Commonwealth (but far better paid than his vis-à-vis in a French colony, e.g., Reunion). A bold and imaginative and humane step is needed now to improve his lot. The Working Party can take that step. It must do so.

5th Year – No 184
Friday 14th February 1958

* Published in print edition on 25 February 2022

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